At first blush, the thought of building a play around four people in an acting class seems like it has potential. After all, the exercises some acting teachers put their charges through can be silly, embarrassing and revealing.
But as performed at Dobama Theatre, Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker turns out to be a long and only fitfully interesting journey. Hampered by cardboard characters and a pacing that makes soil erosion look snappy, the production slowly sinks under its own weight.
Set in a dance rehearsal studio in some small Vermont town, four students have signed up to take a six-week acting class from Marty, a middle-aged woman. One of the pupils is her husband James, who we may assume was shanghaied into the class to help fill it out.
The other participants include Theresa, an ex-actress from New York who has escaped the pressure and claustrophobia of that city, a damaged and twitchy divorced man referred to only as Schultz, and a teenager, dour Lauren, who wants to nab the lead role of sprightly Maria in her school play West Side Story.
Marty leads her charges through a number of exercises meant to bring them “into the moment” and free them to perform, although they see neither hide nor hair of a written play or scene. Then, during break times, the students and teacher connect in further unscripted ways.
There are times when the awkwardness of the situation leads to some faintly amusing tableaux, such as when Marty invites Schultz to recreate his boyhood bedroom using the other students as set pieces and props. It makes no sense from an acting perspective but, what the heck, it's a bit of a giggle.
The structure of the play, however, works against audience involvement. By writing separate scenes, each ending in a blackout, playwright Baker is continually restarting instead of following any particular threads. And the blackouts begin to feel like a gimmick designed to lend truncated scenes more thematic heft than they have earned.
The cast does succeed in fashioning clearly defined characters. Molly Cornwell is approachable and relaxed as Marty, as is Bob Ellis who plays her hubby. But their serious marital issues, which arise later, remain vague.
Leighann Niles DeLorenzo brings a fresh energy to Theresa. But her initial attraction to the uptight Schultz (Joe Milan) never seems credible, nor does her much different reaction to him as the weeks pass. Allison Bencar as Lauren looks, appropriately, like the sister of the deadpan slacker April Ludgate in TV’s Parks and Recreation.
But director Juliette Regnier doesn’t help this promising cast flesh out their characters and realize its potential. By allowing each of the actors to essentially have the same slow and considered rhythms, Regnier buffers many beats that should flash and spark.
Add to that the desultory pace of many scenes — the director clearly has never met a lingering pause she didn’t adore — and the class feels more like a forced march than the interesting and revealing game it should be.
On the plus side, Circle Mirror Transformation will give you many quiet interludes when your mind can drift. But that may not have been the desired result.
Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road. Through May 15. Tickets $10 to $20, 216-932-3396.